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Neil Shipperley - The West Ham play-off final was my proudest moment

29 May 2019

15 years ago to the day, Crystal Palace launched themselves into the Premier League and memories of one match from 2004 - a distant past given Palace's packed history since - will stand out strongly and proudly in the minds of south Londoners.

But it will be one man in particular who appears most prominently among any nostalgic recollections: Neil Shipperley.

When Palace earned promotion to the Premier League in the 2003/2004 season, it was following a play-off final win over West Ham United. Shipperley captained the side that day and scored the match's solitary, promotion-winning goal.

And perhaps for him more than anyone, it was a day to remember. "To score the only goal and to be captain is probably my proudest moment in football," he said when speaking with last year. "If you wrote a storyline, that’s what you’d want: to score the winner and to captain your side."

Palace played the game at the Millennium Stadium, as the new Wembley build was still incomplete. When referee Graham Poll blew his whistle for full-time, the celebrations under the strong Welsh sun were vibrant and the image of a jubilant Iain Dowie throwing both hands into the air has become something of a symbol for how the side and its fans felt having languished in the country's second tier for six seasons.

But, according to Shipperley, the celebrations didn't end off the pitch... 

"After, I didn’t go to bed!" he exclaimed. "I was supposed to do a live interview for the BBC but they phoned my hotel room and I wasn’t even there! We partied quite hard. When we went to Cardiff, we were always going to have a night out and a celebration. And we certainly did, well, I certainly did! We celebrated hard."

Sadly, however, the joy was only to last a season and a cruel twist of fate meant that Palace found themselves relegated the next year third from bottom, just one point behind West Bromwich Albion. While Shipperley, then 31, didn't feature nearly as much as he did in the 2004 promotion campaign, looking back, he says going down was still just as painful.

"In 2004, I didn’t figure a lot because I had a knee injury which kept me out. It was more watching on the sidelines which was harder because, if you’re playing, you can have some kind of impact.

"That one went to the last game of the season with Dougie [Freedman] scoring and us almost staying up. But they hurt the same, relegation is horrible so I’m just so proud of the club to see where they are now and looking like an established Premier League side."

However, the rise and fall of promotion followed by relegation had been endured in a Palace shirt before by Shipperley, as the forward had spent two years with the club in his first spell in south London between 1996 and 1998.

It was in 1997 that a resilient Palace side - spurred on, of course, by David Hopkin - earned themselves promotion to the Premier League only to be relegated again the next season.

That was in Shipperley's earlier days, but he still remembers promotion in '97 just as fondly.

"I can remember the 1997 game quite vividly," he recalled. "It was sweltering, I remember the heat. I remember the fans being incredible too. I know people often say, ‘Oh, the fans give you an extra 10%’, but they really did get us through extra-time.

"They were magnificent. It was always going to go to penalties but then, Hopkin. The relief of someone scoring a goal like that, it could have just trickled over like mine [in 2004], but to score it the way he did was absolutely fantastic.

"It was absolutely perfect, he bent it straight into the top corner and the ‘keeper just looked at it as if it was going wide. But it just went into the top corner and there’s nothing you can do about them, you’ve just got to watch and admire."

And today, the now 44-year-old is enjoying his third spell at Palace, his career seemingly unable to leave the club behind.

"I do the matchday hosting which I really enjoy. I follow Palace and I sort of love my role as a matchday host. I’m 100% Palace. It’s my club without a shadow of a doubt. 

"I started working at Palace and nothing has really changed: it’s a family club, I’m very proud to say that. Some of the people still working there are there from when I was and it’s got a really good feel to it. It’s a real pleasure to be associated with them."

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